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Marissa Lingen

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Men die, cattle die, even the series protagonists themselves must one day die. [Apr. 5th, 2011|04:12 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I have been thinking about protagonist deaths in fiction, when they work for people and when they don't. I would particularly like to hear more about what works for you in the comment section, with specific and potentially spoilery examples, so read the other comments with care if you are spoiler-sensitive.

Poll #1727111 Over Deathgate Falls

Which of the following factors affect how likely you are to be okay with the death of a protagonist?

Whether there are other protagonists I like to continue the story
Whether there are other previously non-protag secondary characters who seem capable of picking it up
Whether it fits the character's arc, dammit
How old the character is
How culpable the character is
Whether it is permanent or temporary
Where it falls in a book (middle or end)
Where it falls in a series (middle or end)
Whether I like the character
Whether I find the character interesting
Whether there is much or little denouement
What is going on in my own life at the time I first read the story
I never like protagonists dying.
I always like protagonists dying. Also other characters. The more doom the better.
Something else I will kindly explore in comments

PS No, I am not thinking of killing off Carter. As far as I know, Carter does not die. Bullets can't...wait, that's something else.

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From: swan_tower
2011-04-05 09:32 pm (UTC)
I almost checked every single ticky box, because really, all of that can affect how I feel about it. Protagonist death is a complicated issue, and gets more complicated the larger a percentage of the narrative that protagonist carries. Somebody like Martin can off them with more impunity, because his story is divided among so many characters; if, on the other hand, the protagonist is the only pov we've had all book, then getting rid of them is a much trickier matter.

(And I say that as somebody who has done it, albeit in a book I have not yet sold.)

Come to think of it, I guess I've done protagonist death of one sort or another in three of my five published books. So I guess I should have checked the "doom" ticky box after all?
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[User Picture]From: arielstarshadow
2011-04-05 10:44 pm (UTC)
GRRM lost me at Book 1 of "the series everyone is talking about" precisely because of who he axed. I tried to read Book 2, had zero interest because none of the other characters interested me enough, and haven't touched the series since.
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[User Picture]From: pnkrokhockeymom
2011-04-05 09:35 pm (UTC)
I answered with a definition of "be okay with" as "It doesn't make me think the book sucks" or "doesn't spoil the story for me." But that might not mean I'm OK with it in an emotional sense; I might mourn. I mean, if I love your character and she dies, I might not be okay with it in that I may cry and weep and tear my hair out of my scalp, but that won't stop me loving the story if I would otherwise love it.

If the definition of "be okay with" that you're looking for is "doesn't wreck the story for me," then the death just needs to work in the story and the character arc. If the definition of "be okay with" is, instead, however, "I won't be angry, be sad, curse, walk around in a funk upset that someone real to me has passed," well, um, then my answer is probably different.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2011-04-05 09:57 pm (UTC)
Wait! She stole my newsletter idea!

I point to the works of Bear, Elizabeth, as the prime example of doing it right. I *hate* it when she kills characters, because then I *miss* them, but all of the many deaths are required by the story. She never just goes "oh, I need to make Worf mad, I might as well kill his girlfriend." NOT THAT I'M BITTER OR ANYTHING.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2011-04-05 09:38 pm (UTC)
Basically, I just don't approve of it.

I'm still kind of pissed at Heinlein for killing off Valentine Michael Smith; particularly since it didn't solve any plot problems (he's taught people too much, there are powerful magicians everywhere). (Yeah, I know, he couldn't resist the religious imagery. Sucks to be him.)

Now, he maybe really did have to kill Mycroft Holmes (another Mike) off; too powerful a piece to leave on the board. Not that he did anything with the continuity after that book, though.

I don't count temporary deaths. That's different; in particular, that's not actual death.

Paul Tankersly wasn't a protagonist, but Weber probably thought he had to do that to Honor. I'm doubtful it was really necessary.

I really can't think of any other books I like where a protagonist dies. I'm probably forgetting 15 obvious ones, though. But really; even Sam and Frodo survive the quest. Even Merry and Pippin. Now, Gandalf was a shock; but also, having him sent back was a clear indication that the higher-ups were taking sides. He was sort of a protagonist.

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[User Picture]From: timprov
2011-04-05 09:43 pm (UTC)
Mike Smith didn't die, he just discorporated, which was clearly different. And Mike Holmes was implied to still be alive later. (Is your "Not that he did anything with the continuity after that book" meant to be the equivalent of "So sad they never made a fifth season of The Wire"?)
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2011-04-05 09:39 pm (UTC)
I am not big on "he's dead, only fooling" type stories. If he's dead, he should be dead, not show up in the last chapter after all. Yes, I mean you, Spider Robinson.
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[User Picture]From: cyranocyrano
2011-04-05 09:46 pm (UTC)
This thing that you have said here, I agree with it. Death has an emotional impact, and if an author insists on jerking me around by cheapening it, I'm gonna take my eyes and go home.

As far as I know, Carter does not die. Bullets can't...
"Spotted Carter cannot be killed by a bullet."
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From: stillsostrange
2011-04-05 09:39 pm (UTC)
Sometimes death is the natural conclusion to a character's arc or predicament, and sometimes characters die anyway because the author is mean that's the way the story works. In the latter case, what bothers me is if the death feels cheap or exploitative, or if I feel like the author is deliberately thumbing his nose at the reader. (Joss Whedon, I am looking at you.) Or if the author has killed a cooler character to put the spotlight back on a less-cool (to me, anyway) primary character.

Of course, I'm a softy who doesn't kill enough. Err, fictional people, that is.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2011-04-05 09:58 pm (UTC)
Those of us who love your fictional characters are perfectly fine with that.
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[User Picture]From: brooksmoses
2011-04-05 09:42 pm (UTC)
I'm reminded of one of the books that I gave up on in the middle of the climactic scene (although I did finish it; but with suspension of disbelief rather badly broken) -- there, the problem was approximately that a protagonist didn't die when they needed to. There was a massive bloody battle. Whole squads were killed, left and right; there were few survivors on either side. And the protagonists were scattered all through the middle of this -- and they kept not dying. At all. Not even meaningfully injured.

On the other hand, that was somewhat of an exception, and the problem was not simply that the protagonists didn't die, but that the whole shape of the story was wrong for them to die. So just having one of them die wouldn't fix it.


Beyond that, one of the things that really annoys me about character deaths, both protagonist and important-supporting-character alike, is when they happen at a point that is clearly for thematic purposes without the plot support. The book I was reading last night has this problem; the protagonist's not-quite-partner has set up a party in order to try to reconcile the protagonist with a couple of estranged friends -- and then, having set up the party and arranged that they will encounter each other and fulfilled that thematic role, she is "randomly" killed by a drunk driver on the way to the party, and then takes on the new thematic role of a factor in the protagonist's continued depression and regrets about past choices. It's all too tidy and convenient, and dehumanizes her from a character I can care about into a cardboard foil for the protagonist, whose death is worth causing simply to make a thematic point.

Protagonists die of thematic points, too, and it annoys me even more there -- "I exist for this story element that is my life's work, and the work is done, so I will die now. All done. It makes the completion so poignant, and underscores how it was the only purpose I had!" Especially when the death is a convenient way of tidying up the consequences.
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From: ellen_fremedon
2011-04-05 10:41 pm (UTC)
This, with bonus hate for character deaths which conveniently spare surviving characters from having to look them in the eye and say uncomfortable things like "you were right" or "please forgive me."

(Snape. Ianto Jones. Not that I'm still bitter at all, oh no.)
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2011-04-05 11:05 pm (UTC)
I could easily have checked all the boxes, but I picked the four that seemed most critical to me. I think the most important, which I kind of lumped under "fits the characters arc" is that death has to have a point to it, beyond the writer wanting to tug at my heartstrings or prove some kind of point.

Then there are the weird corner cases that don't really count as protagonist death. I'm reading Iain Banks's Surface Detail at the moment, and one of his POV characters is an uploaded consciousness in a computer simulation. He dies in practically every chapter in which he appears, and it doesn't matter because they just reboot him. I'm not only okay with it, I'm finding it hilarious.
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[User Picture]From: aedifica
2011-04-05 11:35 pm (UTC)

Something else I just thought of (partial spoilers for Stargate SG-1 and Bones)

Stargate SG-1 spoiler: in season 5 when Daniel did something very much like dying, my reaction was "...wait. This is happening already? I knew something like this was going to happen, but I thought it would be later!" Because I'd read enough SG-1 fanfic to know that he was going to Ascend, and I also knew that sometime later he was going to un-Ascend, though I didn't know the details of either event.

So I think that's another option: much as I hate to say it because I hate spoilers in general*, I was more OK with this death-like event because I already knew it was going to happen sometime. If I hadn't known that, I would have been upset about Daniel's death, and I'd have been muttering angrily about Zach from Bones and how it was just like the show treated him. (This season of SG-1 was filmed before that season of Bones, I know, but I watched Bones first.) But happily, with the later un-Ascension, the whole thing does work with the story and Daniel's character development much better than Zach disappearing off to jail worked there. IMHO.

* I'm reading comments on this entry with my eyes half-averted so as to try to avoid spoilers on anything I haven't read yet. :-)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-06 07:50 pm (UTC)

Bones S3 and Criminal Minds before current season

So the comment about Bones reminded me that I absolutely do not privilege death this way. Other ways of removing characters can be just as annoying and poorly thought out, just as disrespectful of how a character works. That Zak (Zach? Zack? Dr. Addy!) should kill people: maybe, depending on how they handled it. But that he should do so with such huge logic holes? No.

Criminal Minds has a couple of examples that way before the current season (which I have not seen). The removal of Elle was, in my opinion, very much in keeping with both the character and the tone of the show. The show had been exploring the stresses on people in this line of work, and that they should affect someone in the way they affected Elle was not only in keeping with how the show handled characters but also added weight and consequence to the thing. The characters are not all going to magically be able to keep doing their jobs forever no matter what. Some of them will break.

And in that light, the departure of Jason Gideon seemed less well-done. I get that Mandy Patinkin forced their hand, and they may well have done the best that was humanly possible under the circumstances. But under better circumstances I think I would have wanted more denouement from it if no further foreshadowing was possible.
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[User Picture]From: miz_hatbox
2011-04-06 01:10 am (UTC)
It all depends on so many factors, some of which are here and some of which are not. And what is this "okay"ness of which you speak? Does it count if I cry a lot but I adore the book? What if I am unmoved and unruffled?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2011-04-06 10:04 pm (UTC)
"Okay," to me, is probably best approximated by "I would read another book by this author without making upset noises about hoping they didn't do anything like THAT again."
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2011-04-06 01:31 am (UTC)
Something else I will kindly explore in comments

A) whether they were fridged to motivate another character, or whether the death was related to their own arc and agency

B) whether the death was a punishment for something the author disapproves of and that I think is not worthy of punishment, such as being strong and female

C) whether they were romantically involved with someone of the same gender, because enough already.

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From: diatryma
2011-04-06 12:10 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes. I'm also not fond of sacrifice-yourself endings. It seems like it's usually female protags who give everything up.
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2011-04-06 01:31 am (UTC)
The best way I can put it is that the death needs to not feel cheap. Especially, it needs to not fit either the'Girl in the Fridge' or 'Dead Fag' tropes. It must not happen only to shock the audience, or to provide another character with pretty angst (and particularly not to provide another character motivation to Swear to Never Be Close to Anyone Again). GRRM and Elizabeth Bear consistently get it right. Like the rest of the thread, I am Looking At Joss Wheadon and Russell T. Davies so hard.

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[User Picture]From: stakebait
2011-04-07 11:58 am (UTC)
Seconded (or thirded or fourthed) on GRRM and EBear both. I was particularly impressed by the GRRM versus Kurtz contrast since they're dealing with quite similar world requirements and yet the emotional impact is so different. Though of course she has more books out, and it might be cumulative...
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2011-04-06 01:33 am (UTC)
This is totally failing to support my assertion, at Fourth Street, that my wife and I are two different people.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2011-04-06 02:10 am (UTC)
One brain, two bodies? I'm sure I've read that book.
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[User Picture]From: moiread
2011-04-06 01:38 am (UTC)
I like it to be at or near the end, and I need to like the protagonist, and I need it to mean something. I know that realistically, in life, people die in ways that are sudden or senseless or stupid or whatever else, and poignant meaningful deaths where one person gives up his or her life to save the world don't really happen out here. But when it comes to stories, that's the kind of thing I like, even if it isn't specifically about one person saving the world. Just... that kind of thing. And it helps if you have secondary characters (and it's best if I like them too) to sort of epilogue it in some way.

Protagonists who are randomly shot on their way to the grocery store for no apparent reason other than to show the reader that sometimes sudden pointless death happens? Not so much my thing. Though I can imagine a scenario or two in which a particularly skilled author whose brain I like finds a way to make that work.
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[User Picture]From: moiread
2011-04-06 01:55 am (UTC)
"Protagonists who are randomly shot on their way to the grocery store for no apparent reason other than to show the reader that sometimes sudden pointless death happens? Not so much my thing."

I meant to add 'in the middle of the book' to that. I would actually be more okay with it at the end of a book.
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[User Picture]From: dormouse_in_tea
2011-04-06 02:34 am (UTC)
I can't stand it when it's pretty obvious that the author just got tired of writing one character, and killed them off just to be sure they'd never have to again.

I HATE it when character death = end of the story. HATE.

And you really have to sell me on temporary death, otherwise I roll my eyes about stupid plot devices.

But I don't really mind when characters die. I bawl my eyes out, but if that's what happens, that's what happens.
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2011-04-06 02:36 am (UTC)
That's one of the things I like about Sherlock Holmes; he made Conan Doyle write him some more anyway.
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[User Picture]From: merriehaskell
2011-04-06 03:29 am (UTC)
So much to say and no coherence to articulate it with.

If it is rightly done for the arc, and well done by the writer, then there's not much I'll object to. My deal breakers in fiction are not what happens to the characters, it's what happens to me the reader while I'm reading the book that turns me on or off, and as a whole, if you make me feel something that makes me cry--then okay! Frustrate and confuse me? Deal's off. Drop me out of the story because you're a sadistic bastard who doesn't promote a worldview with a shred of human happiness, hope OR dignity? Pass.

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